After dominating on the mound last season, Bellefonte’s Adam Armstrong still felt like he was on top of the world heading into the 2017 campaign.
It didn’t take long for Armstrong to receive a wakeup call as he allowed more runs in 3 2/3 innings in the team’s season-opening loss (7) to DuBois than he did in 38 innings in 2016 (6). The left-hander said he continued to struggle this year until the final few innings of Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to Central Mountain.
“It was the first time I felt what I felt last season,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong started to find his confidence Wednesday, limiting the Wildcats to four hits and one run in six innings. The junior also struck out nine and walked three for Bellefonte (4-2) before reaching the 100-pitch limit put in place by the PIAA this year and leaving with the game tied. Central Mountain (4-3) scored three runs in the eighth inning to break open what had been a pitchers’ duel between Armstrong and Wildcats starter Ethan Watkins.
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Watkins, who also reached the 100-pitch limit, allowed one run and struck out six in 6 1/3 innings.
Armstrong never thought he’d have to overcome such early adversity this season — especially after his performance last year.
The left-hander threw a one-hitter in a 1-0 win over Cathedral Prep in the PIAA quarterfinals to help the Red Raiders continue their run to the state title. It was his final start in 2016 and capped a brilliant run in which he went 5-1 with a 0.74 ERA. He allowed six runs (four earned) all last year after joining the varsity team midway through his sophomore season.
In his first outing of 2017, the left-hander allowed seven runs (six earned) and eight hits in 3 2/3 innings.
“I couldn’t spot my pitches,” Armstrong said. “I felt like I wasn’t throwing hard. I just felt like I wasn’t good.”
He didn’t feel much better in his ensuing outings or at the start of Wednesday’s game against the Wildcats, who have now won four straight games. During his previous appearances, he said, he wasn’t throwing strikes, and he allowed a leadoff walk that turned into Central Mountain’s first run on Wednesday.
Armstrong gave up all three walks in the first two innings before Red Raiders coach Dan Fravel talked with him about his approach.
“I had to remind him early in the ball game, ‘Listen, we’re just not out there chucking pitches all over the place,’” Fravel said. “Every pitch is supposed to be your very best pitch, like that’s the mentality of a really dominant pitcher.”
That’s the type of pitcher Armstrong was a year ago.
He mixed his sharp curveball with his fastball to shut down opposing hitters. The same pitch combination worked Wednesday as Armstrong settled in and pounded the strike zone in his final four innings. Armstrong said he needed to find the right pace — trying not to go too fast while also not taking too much time between pitches.
He found that rhythm along with the release point on his curveball.
The lefty kept Central Mountain’s hitters off-balance.
“We have some guys that normally put bats on the ball that didn’t today,” Wildcats coach Mike Kramer said.
Bellefonte managed just one run against Watkins, a hard-throwing right-hander with an effective breaking ball.
Kramer said he would have stuck with Watkins in the same situation a year ago, but under the new pitch count rules, the coach had to replace his starter after getting the first out of the seventh inning.
“Ethan’s a guy that he can throw forever and still be able to do what he did from inning one,” Kramer said. “And everybody’s different, we have other guys who can only throw four or five innings.”
Fravel said it was a good time to make a pitching change after the sixth, even if Armstrong wasn’t restricted by the new rule.
The left-hander put together an efficient outing and rediscovered his confidence.
And looking back, he was partly happy for his rough season opener.
“That game kind of brought me down,” Armstrong said, “and told me that like, ‘Hey I’m not going to go out there and throw a perfect game every single time.’”